At the beginning of the Democratic primary the supporters of Hillary Clinton dismissed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as a fringe candidate. It must be said that the tone of the campaign has also changed markedly since the start and that the basis upon which people have supported Clinton has been sloppy and inane logic. When Sanders was polling below Vice President Biden, who wasn’t even running, the Clinton campaign’s approach was patronising and somewhat jovial.
After Sanders gained in the polls the Clinton camp changed tone and shifted the rhetoric to the Left in order to prevent people running toward Sanders. The words coming out of Clinton’s mouth may have changed but many of the premises that Clinton supporters use to justify their decision has remained moronic.
The first premise is that “she can get things done”, which is couched in her experience in public life. This is stupid for a number of reasons but I’ll go in an order that I think provides the best refutation. The premises used by supporters of a political candidate are supposed to differentiate your preferred candidates from all the others in the race. By implication those who use this premise are saying that Bernie Sanders can’t get stuff done, which is simply false.
As a mayor Sanders: made Burlington one of the most affordable places to live in the US; regenerated the town’s waterfront including the construction of public parks and social housing; and balanced the town’s budget. As a Congressman he; co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus; defeated the passage of the Online Freedom of Speech Act, which would have exempted the internet from McCain-Feingold’s campaign finance restrictions; and fought against the deregulation of Wall Street, the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As a Senator Sanders; chaired the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs; passed the Veterans CHOICE Act which has been widely touted as the most significant piece of veterans legislation in decades and involved working with Republicans like war-hawk John McCain; and led the opposition to the continuation of the Bush Tax Cuts.
In the lists I just gave I included things that he was unsuccessful at, notably the Iraq War and the deregulation of Wall Street, but this illustrates that even when he was unable to ‘get things done’ he was on the right side of those issues. If the choice is between getting legislation passed which would deregulate Wall Street or ‘getting nothing done’, put me down for the latter.
Another aspect of this same premise is that Clinton knows how the system works and can use that to her advantage. Clinton was First Lady from 1993 to 2001, became a New York Senator from 2001 to 2009, and was appointed Secretary of State in 2009 until 2013. Clinton’s total time getting to know how the federal government works amounts to an impressive 20 years. Sanders was elected to the House of Representatives in 1991 and served until 2007 after which he was elected to the Senate where he remains to this day. Sanders total time becoming equated with the system is exactly 25 years. Once again, how does Clinton’s knowledge of the federal government give her the advantage over Sanders when the Vermont Senator has five years of additional experience?
A slightly different premise, which I alluded to earlier, has only come to recent prominence as a Clinton talking point: “a key part of being a progressive is progress”. This sentence annoys me for three reasons. Firstly being a progressive is an ideological statement which in other countries relates to being a social-democrat. This entails strong regulation of the private sector, increased taxation in order to provide more government services, and a strong government-run welfare state including healthcare provision, paid medical leave, and so on.
Clinton didn’t support strong regulation of the private sector because if she did she wouldn’t have supported repealing Glass-Steagall, and if she has evolved and now does she would advocate it being reintroduced. She has criticised Sanders for wanting to raise taxes in order to fund more government programmes like paid family leave and free tuition at public colleges, even though these will save people money in the long term. And lastly, although supportive of some social-democratic policies, she opposes a single-payer healthcare system and has lamented the loss of private sector health insurance. I’m not a progressive, I’m much more left-wing and therefore don’t have a vested interest in defending the term but I can say will full confidence that Clinton isn’t one either.
Secondly ‘progress’ is an incredibly abstract concept that is in the eye of the beholder. Progress, in the context of what centre-left politicians want, is not the same thing as supporting things that get enacted. For example if I was a Senator and voted to abolish the minimum wage, that could be classed a form of progress, however this form of progress is incompatible with my ideological beliefs. The reason that such an act wouldn’t be in-keeping with the philosophy of a progressive politician is that ‘progress’ is a means to an end, with that end being improved living and working conditions. It is not, therefore, a synonym of ‘any change from current government policy’.
Thirdly Clinton likes to describe herself as a “progressive that gets things done” but ‘what did she get done?’ is a perfectly valid follow-up question. To her credit she has argued for comprehensive immigration reform and opposed the Bush Tax Cuts, however she also ‘got done’ a series of policies that aren’t only not progressive, they’re not even liberal. Clinton voted in favour of the Iraq War, in favour of the PATRIOT Act, and whilst not in the Senate supported DOMA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the continuation of American military adventurism around the world. If being “a progressive that gets things done” means ‘a progressive that abandons the ideological foundations of progressivism in order to have politically expedient policy positions’ then yes, she is correct.
Another premise used by people who support Clinton is that “Bernie’s plans are too unrealistic” and therefore Clinton’s proposals are more achievable. The question I would like to ask is: what makes you say that? What makes Clinton’s proposals more realistic to achieve? If Congress is divided, which is a distinct possibility, a President Clinton will get the same amount done as a President Sanders. In fact I would contend that Sanders would get more done because if you drew up a list of Democrats that Republicans hate the most, the top of the list, possibly with the exception of President Obama, would be Hillary Clinton. If the Congressional Republicans made many of the Obama Years the least productive in Congressional history, why would they start doing deals with President Hillary Clinton.
It’s also worth pointing out that this approach is an incredibly defeatist attitude in two ways. Firstly, Bernie Sanders has polled significantly better among independent voters, which decide Presidential and Congressional elections; if independents are energised by the prospect of a Sanders Presidency, they may come out and vote for Democratic candidates in Congressional races. And secondly, America has always characterised itself as a country of possibility. I am not American, but it’s slogan of ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ has spread around the world and by pointing to things like landing on the Moon and the Emancipation Proclamation this slogan could be argued to be true.
I’m not saying that I agree with the statement but I’m saying that people could argue in favour of it using these historic examples. The thing I would then say is: what would these Clinton supporters say to JFK when he said that he wanted to land a man on the moon? What would these Clinton supporters say to Abraham Lincoln when he said he wanted to free the slaves? Saying something is too unrealistic limits what you can achieve; in the famous words of Norman Vincent Peale: “shoot for the moon. even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. In other words, if you start negotiating from an ambitious place, you’re compromise will be better than if you’re starting position is already a compromise.
Something that cropped up in the most recent Democratic debate was that Clinton claimed that she couldn’t be in the establishment because she was a woman. Again this is stupid for a number of reasons. To have the experience that Clinton has based her entire campaign upon, you have to have been a part of the establishment. You can’t on one hand say that ‘I know how the federal government works because I was married to the President and was Secretary of State’ and then turn around and say ‘I’m an outsider’. This is no longer a critique of policy substance it’s just a statement of fact: if you have loads of experience and boast about knowing the inside track of how the system operates, how can you say that you are not an establishment insider? It is literally one or the other.
So why is Sanders not an insider, after all he has been in Washington for five years longer than Clinton? The reason is that Sanders was an independent politician who was a self-described democratic socialist in a country where the two party system is incredibly entrenched and calling yourself a socialist in any way is as about as politically expedient as campaigning on a platform of banning sex and killing children. Being a part of the establishment is nothing to do with the ownership of ovaries, it is a political statement that involves having the support of entrenched interests such as the media and Corporate America, and enacting policies that benefit these interests. Arguing against the status quo and the conventional wisdom is also off limits for pillars of the establishment. Clinton is proposing the same kind of economic policies that were implemented by Democrats in the 1990s, and has the backing of a large number of big businesses as well as a series of media outlets.
Clinton also has a number of endorsements from campaign groups but there is an interesting fact that must be considered. The Intercept released information about how each organisation that has endorsed a candidate made that decision. Six of the eighteen listed supported Sanders but all six of these have one thing in common: the decision was made or severely influenced by the votes of the membership. The twelve that endorsed Clinton were all decided by the executive boards of these organisations; some of the organisations that endorsed Clinton did involve consulting their memberships but the results of these consultations haven’t been released with one of the reasons being that some of these consultations were non-binding.
The final premise that I want to look at is related to the previous one because it focusses upon Clinton’s possession of a vagina: “I’m supporting Clinton because she is a woman”. Before I start unpacking this one I would like to point out that some of the accusations against Clinton being the President are based in sexism, and as a feminist I would like to emphasise that my critique of Clinton has been purely based on her policy position and her public statements.
A presidential candidate should be elected based on their ideas and their ability to communicate these ideas to the electorate. I understand why people want there to be a woman in the White House, because it would be a milestone and the US would join dozens of other countries who have had female leaders. However why would you vote for someone, irrespective of gender, if you don’t agree with their policies? The only time that gender should considered, in my view, is if the two candidates in question have exactly the same policies in every area but the choice was between another white guy or a woman. But that isn’t going to happen because no two politicians agree on every issue.
For example if it was a choice between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, I would vote for Elizabeth Warren because she is more left-wing, not because she was a woman. If an even more left-wing candidate opposes Hillary Clinton, as is the case with Bernie Sanders, why would I not vote for that candidate? The first female president should be someone who people agree with on policy substance as well as being a woman. Here’s another comparison: if America hadn’t had an African-American president yet and the choice was between Joe Biden or Ben Carson, Democrats wouldn’t argue in favour of Ben Carson because he was black. The same applies here: why should people support Clinton solely because she is a woman?
These are all the premises I could find fault with, but I’m sure there are others that i am unaware of. Let me be absolutely clear, I don’t care if you support Clinton for ideological reasons. If you a centrist Democrat then my disagreement with you is over policy and that is a discussion that we can have in a sane and calm way. However if you support the Democratic Party but are using the premises I’ve mentioned to justify your preference of Hillary Clinton, may I suggest you look for more logically consistent reasons and join the discussion of ideas rather than cosmetic differences. I honestly would love there to be a female president in the near future but if that dream has to wait a few years until the right candidate is willing to run so be it.